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Connecting Humans:

safeplace in cyberspace:
how Austin, Texas netizens and a nonprofit
make a difference using the Internet

 

"Far from isolating Austinites, the Internet has made it possible for more of us to share our stories,
to mourn our friends and loved ones who were victims, and to celebrate the survivors."

Rachel R. Hartman, SafePlace volunteer

 
This is more than a story of how the Internet helps people make a difference; it also is a powerful testimonial to how to effectively donate professional services, and how well a balance of face-to-face and online volunteering can work.


This information was published on April 3, 2000; some of the URLs are no longer functional. You can still find the information though -- simply type in the URL that isn't working into archive.org.

 
by Rachel R. Hartman

 
A lot of companies nowadays try to find a charity they can work with on a long-term basis. For us at Hartman WebWrights, the choice was simple: SafePlace, Austin's domestic violence and sexual assault prevention center. Our experience has resulted in a clear and constant demonstration of how the Internet has expanded the possibilities of volunteering.

Back when SafePlace was two separate agencies (the Center for Battered Women and the Austin Rape Crisis Center), Annie Born, the daughter of friends was murdered over Independence Day weekend. Annie is believed to have been killed by an ex-boyfriend. Per her family's request, my husband and I, as private individuals, had sent a check to the Center for Battered Women as a memorial for Annie. But a financial donation from two people only goes so far, and as long-time netizens we knew first-hand the power of the Internet to connect individuals and bring them together in common cause. It was far too late to save Annie, but there are hundreds and thousands of "Annies" every year. We decided to write Kelly Roundtree, the Executive Director, and offer our services as webmasters.

A short time later, we got a call from Ellen Fisher, then Deputy Director for Community & Public Affairs. After assuring Ellen that the offer was indeed serious, we rattled our network of geek friends and managed to arrange for free web hosting and the assistance of a graphic artist and some HTML slingers. It didn't take long at all to assemble our team. Some knew about violence first-hand, while others had known the helplessness of seeing loved ones in abusive situations. Maybe it's just our particular circle of friends, but there are a lot of romantics out on the Net--and not merely in the amorous sense. Romantics who still believe that Good should triumph over Evil. That a call to arms must be answered. That we're all in it together. That we must help each other if we are not to be extinguished.

We met with Ellen and Robin Reger, then Public Affairs Manager, at the SafePlace office downtown. From the beginning, we essentially treated SafePlace as we would a paying client: Who do you picture as your typical visitor? What kind of information do you want on the Web? What kind of information do you want up first? We agreed on a sketch of the site's layout and an outline of content, then set to work. Since that first meeting, most of our work has been done online, with the "rough drafts" of the site posted in a private corner of the Web, and suggestions flying back and forth via e-mail. E-mail was our chosen method of meeting, as it allowed us to document discussions and decisions. For our team members, this was the best way for them to contribute, as they were physically located in New York, California, Illinois, northern Texas, and Canada. For Robin and Ellen, e-mail allowed them to make their contributions at their convenience, without major disruptions to their already busy schedules. This approach has continued with Autumn Williams, the current Public Affairs Manager.

Most of the early work was simply translating some of SafePlace's brochures and handouts into something suitable for the Web. Because the SafePlace site's typical visitor is a victim trying to find help before being discovered by his/her batterer, we opted for a plain and simple approach. Therefore, the site is relatively unsophisticated by industry standards, but most pages load in a few seconds, and the hotline numbers are at the bottom of every page. (At this writing, we are also preparing to give the site a thorough review so that surfers using assistive equipment have easy access as well.) The bulk of the content consists of information about SafePlace's wide range of programs, and information about special events, particularly fund-raising events. For their annual Walk for Safe Streets and Safe Families, we designed a CGI mail form that people could use to register as individuals or as a team. Route information, the schedule of events, and a partial list of donors were included. Corporate teams linked to the Walk section from their intranet pages to help spread the information to their coworkers. The online registration was so successful in 1999 that we plan to continue the practice this year and in the years to follow.

A teen center has recently been added, giving information about dealing with date rape and relationship violence, including a bilingual (Spanish and English) questionnaire designed to help teens think about the way they are treated by their significant others. Since teens make up such a large segment of the online population, a cyberstalking FAQ is also available. This was developed with the assistance of a North Carolina attorney, a leader of Women Halting Online Abuse (WHOA), the women of HerDomain (an Austin-area group of women interested in technology), and the patrons of #callahans (a long-standing and popular Undernet IRC channel). Comments and suggestions for the cyberstalking FAQ were collected through e-mail. This FAQ's usefulness has been recognized by at least one other web site: the Science-fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc., whose members are occasionally subjected to celebrity stalking as well as the more mundane varieties of cyberstalking.

SafePlace has also taken advantage of Amazon.com's Affiliate program to open an online bookstore. While the money they receive every quarter has been welcomed, the Bookstore is also meant to inform visitors about reading choices, particularly in the Non-fiction section. Books in the Fiction and Children's sections are chosen because they either address issues surrounding abuse (such as Margaret Maron's Southern Discomfort or Lois McMaster Bujold's Komarr), or they offer entertaining stories that do not glorify violence (such as the Narnia Chronicles or the Berenstein Bears books).

Since April 1999, the site has been visited by well over 10,000 people, from Texas, from all over the United States, and in other countries. Many visitors have used the web site to learn more about becoming volunteers, about donating money and goods, and about participating in SafePlace's programs. Other donors, both on the corporate and private levels, provide links to the SafePlace site as a means of talking about their donations and volunteerism.

Donating our time to SafePlace has been amazing in so many ways. It is of course very gratifying in the usual ways associated with charity, but it's been very rewarding as a designer as well. For once, I don't have to worry about what the client can afford to have done. It's encouraged me to expand my geek network and find more people interested in working on the site. I've been challenged creatively in ways that seldom happen with a paying client. There's a very strong feeling of partnership when I brainstorm with my SafePlace contacts. If all that weren't enough, how often do you get to design a web site with a client that would be happy to go out of business due to a lack of need for their services?

Recent studies have claimed that the Internet has an inherently and intrinsically isolating effect on us, but our experience with SafePlace contradicts those results. The convenience of information on the Web has enabled more people to learn about SafePlace without adding more to the already heavy workload of the SafePlace staff. Recognizing this, SafePlace has begun to use the web site more aggressively when it comes to community relations. As Ellen Fisher once told me, "I used to have to fax our handouts to the media, but now I just tell them to go to the web site." Schools and other local groups link to the web site to inform their students and members about domestic violence and sexual assault. Far from isolating Austinites, the Internet has made it possible for more of us to share our stories, to mourn our friends and loved ones who were victims, and to celebrate the survivors. Don't tell me the Internet is keeping us apart, because I know, and SafePlace knows, that it is bringing us closer together.

Rachel R. Hartman is a professional writer and frequent speaker on using the Internet effectively. At the time of this article's original publication she was working on a four-article series about Web issues for the AARC newsletter Plane Talk.


 
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